What makes diverse teams fail
Do you work in a team of creators, equalisers or destroyers?
Think for a moment about the people you work with. You might be in an office or work mainly on-line with an international team. Either way, reflect on how the people you work with are different to you and each other and how they are similar. People are different on lots of dimensions such as personality, cultural background and age. Is it easier to work with those people who are similar to you? When you work with those who are very different to you, does the team performance improve or deteriorate? These are interesting questions and not just rhetorical.
It is accepted, usually without question, that diversity in teams is important and a good thing. There are compelling moral and ethical reasons as to why diversity is important and these are enshrined in UK law. There is also much research that supports a business case for diversity and inclusion.
But, is it universally true that diverse teams always outperform homogeneous teams? Well no, it isn’t! Some diverse teams are terrible and spend more time arguing than getting on with the job. Diversity in a team often leads to friction and conflict. This is because people from different backgrounds may not share the same culture, core values, communication patterns, and thinking styles.
Let’s take a look under the surface and examine the nuances that make a diverse team work well.
Joe DiStefano and Martha Mazneviski, two psychologists at the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland noticed a wide variation in performance in diverse business teams and set about investigating why. The answer they came up with was (you’ve guessed it): the quality of leadership and management. They found that diverse teams tend to perform either much better or far worse than homogeneous ones, with more performing worse than better. In other words, when diverse teams are managed badly they greatly underperform when compared with similar homogeneous teams (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000).
Their research is interesting and is worth knowing about because it has significant implications for how to manage diverse and especially hybrid teams.
DiStefano and Maznevsky found that the diverse teams they studied tended to fall into one of these three distinct categories:
Destroyers: Some diverse teams are an absolute disaster. Their members don’t like or trust each other, they guard information jealously, and take every opportunity to criticise each other. Energy that could be channelled into productive work, ends up being burnt up in endless conflict, office politics and a culture of grievance and complaint. This 'team' destroys value rather than creates it.
Equalisers: Some teams are okay and get by, by pretending that diversity doesn't exist or doesn’t matter in their t. The culture of these teams is to actively suppress differences in order to avoid or smooth over any potential conflict. There are two problems with this: first, by suppressing differences the team also suppresses creativity, different perspectives and radical ideas (cognitive diversity in short). Second, the suppressed conflict goes underground to reemerge as stress, high levels of sickness absence and general apathy. Most diverse teams that think of themselves as 'doing well' are really equalisers. They are not exactly bad, but they are just dull and mediocre.
Creators: Some diverse teams, of course, do perform exceptionally well. In these teams, differences are explicitly recognised and accepted, even nurtured. These are the teams that create massive value and far outperform Equaliser teams.
DiStefano and Maznevski identified three processes that need to happen to produce a well functioning diverse team.
Mapping: Managers and team members should acknowledge and make an effort to make the diversity explicit, understand the differences, and how these impact on work and team performance.
Bridging: Team members should figure out how best to communicate effectively across the differences. The aim being to bring people and ideas together and prevent miscommunication.
Integrating: Finally, managers should actively manage the differences to get the most from the team. People are different and have different skills related to their personality and cultural differences. If managers can match these unique skills to team tasks, then performance and engagement improve.
One of the most important factors in the Creator teams was how actively the diverse team members were included in decision making. Managers of Creator teams actively and assertively encouraged every member of the team to participate in decision making.
Here is a simple technique you can use to encourage creative diversity in your team meetings:
People produce more and better ideas alone than in a group. So, ask everyone to prepare thoughtfully before the meeting. During the meeting, go around the room, and ask people for their thoughts in turn. This prevents any one person from dominating. Pause the meeting occasionally to give people time to think, reflect, and write down their thoughts. Then ask people their thoughts again.
Brainwriting is another way of generating creative ideas. It’s different from its older sibling brainstorming, because instead of presenting ideas verbally, out loud, you write them down on cards, anonymously (at first) and then post them on a wall for the rest of the group to vote on. This encourages creativity and bridges communication gaps for two reasons:
Everyone gets a chance to contribute no matter how shy they might be or how different their ideas might be. It means that the organisation gains access to the thinking of everyone in the team, not just the usual one or two extroverted, confident people.
The advantage of brainwriting is that status and authority are detached from the ideas. The golden rule of brainwriting is that nobody may identify themselves on their idea card – no matter how subtly they might do this. Nobody can use job titles, hints or distinctive handwriting to identify themselves (‘block capitals only please’). This is important because by doing this, you separate the idea from the status of the person who came up with it. People vote on the quality of the proposal, rather than the seniority of the person who suggested it. Matthew Syed, the business writer said,
“When brainwriting is put head to head with brainstorming, it generates twice the volume of ideas, and also produces higher quality ideas when rated by independent assessors. The reason is simple. Brainwriting liberates diversity from the constraints of dominance dynamic.” (Syed, 2020).
Think now about the team you work in. Is it a team of destroyers, equalisers or creators?
DiStefano, J. J. and Maznevski, M. L. (2000), Creating value with diverse teams in global management, Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 29, N.1, pp.45-63.
Syed, M. (2019). Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. London: John Murray.